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Lauren Merkley: Give every Utah student a P for pandemic

FILE - In this April 9, 2020, file photo, Sunnyside Elementary School fourth-grader Miriam Amacker does school work in her room at her family's home in San Francisco. Teachers across the country report their attempts at distance learning induced by the pandemic are failing to reach large numbers of students. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

This year, every Utah teacher passes Go. The State Board of Education has granted us every grace imaginable: They’ve waived year-end tests, teacher evaluations, school grades, even the 180-day requirement.

Students, too, enjoy reprieve in the form of new grading policies, some of which promote grades of P (pass) and I (incomplete) as the cure for their pandemic distress.

However, these policies are no panacea. While the word “incomplete” may smack of mercy — giving kids more time! — in reality, incompletes compound failure among the already vulnerable. This is why every teacher should give every student a passing grade this quarter, regardless of percentage or proficiency. No I. No F. No harm.

A grade of “I” indicates that a student has not yet passed and extends the deadline for completion. Some district deadlines are in summer, others in fall, but realistically the pandemic isn’t going away before either. Unresolved by the deadline, an I converts to the equivalent of an F. It’s a time-delayed failure, an F in I’s clothing.

Take, for example, my 11th grade English student who is woefully behind due to legitimate family and work demands. She wants to throw in the distance learning towel, which would result in an I. An I would mean that, to avoid jeopardizing her graduation, she must rectify her distance learning failure under even worse conditions: up to seven months after in-person instruction, solo, online, on top of her fall courses, or during summer when teachers are less available. And still during a pandemic. Imagine the exponential burden for those saddled with multiple I’s at the end of this surreal quarter.

Within the cocoon of my normal classroom on a normal day, students enjoy equitable and protected time, space, support and materials for learning. Distance learning offers no such promise. The novel coronavirus threw our kids into a slapdash, tragically inequitable school simulacrum without warning or preparation. It stripped away the equalizing forces of public education, however flawed.

It dismissed some kids to mansions with three MacBooks and others to trailers without a telephone and said to both: Perform! One student might have the internet and a parent to edit essays. But another might lack an English-speaker to help with homework, might be working full-time to compensate for a parent’s job loss, might be the primary caretaker/homeschooler for siblings or might languish on a waiting list for free internet installation.

Each of these scenarios is the story of one of my students. No matter how many masked home visits I do, I cannot truly know the details of the home classroom of my 190 students, and I certainly cannot arbitrate which kids have “enough” at home to be held accountable and which have “enough” trauma to merit leniency.

Therefore, grading — even I’s — will largely measure kids’ privilege: their internet access, financial status, parents, space, time, etc. And I’s and F’s aren’t free. They can cost vulnerable students their motivation or even graduation. The answer shouldn’t be radical. Pass every child.

Yes, some fully capable students might “get away” with doing nothing. But wouldn’t we rather accidentally reward a lazy student than punish a suffering one? Grades aside, all students will be at a deficit next year thanks to distance learning. No deluge of I’s will close that gap.

Some may demand, in the name of accountability, that students meet arbitrary levels of effort for a P, like logging in or completing one assignment. However, doing nothing versus completing one or two assignments is a distinction without a difference. Instead of trying to teach life lessons about accountability through I’s and F’s during a pandemic, let’s teach kids that context and nuance matter. Let’s teach them to meet an unprecedented moment with unprecedented mercy. Now, there’s a life lesson.

Teachers, keep fighting for kids’ engagement. Celebrate every morsel of learning. Keep visiting and calling, teaching and emailing. Prepare for the students you will teach in the fall, not the ones you were supposed to teach.

But when fourth quarter grades come due, meet the moment. Multiply the grace you have been given by taking whatever your students have done and making it enough. Be radical in your compassion. Let them all — and I mean all — have P’s.

Lauren Merkley

Lauren Merkley is the 2020 Utah Teacher of the Year. She teaches English at Cottonwood High School in Granite School District.

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